Sermon for Trinity 11
Luke 18:9-14 + Genesis 4:1-15 + Ephesians 2:1-10
King Solomon said this in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
It’s serious business, even dangerous business to do what all of you have done today. You have dared to come to the house of God, to assemble as the Temple of God on earth. Did you guard your steps? Did it even occur to you when you got in the car this morning that you were going to meet with God? “Where two or three come together in my name,” Jesus says, “there am I in the midst of them.” “This is my body; this is my blood.”
It’s a serious matter to come into God’s presence, because whether you realize it or not, you will always receive something from God when you come into his house: either divine acceptance or divine rejection; either divine salvation or divine condemnation.
You heard today of two men – brothers – Cain and Abel, each of whom dared to approach God with an offering. The offering of the one was acceptable to God. The offering of the other was rejected. Abel received God’s approval. Cain received God’s judgment.
You heard today in the Gospel of two men – brothers in the people of Israel – a Pharisee and a tax collector, each of whom dared to go to the house of God to offer something to him in their prayers. The prayer of the one was acceptable to God. The prayer of the other was rejected. The tax collector received God’s salvation. The Pharisee received God’s judgment.
You have come to God’s holy church today – for what? What do seek from him? What do you wish to offer him? Chew on this for awhile: What you receive from God depends on what you seek from God. And what you seek from God depends on what you have to offer him. You could, like the Pharisee in Jesus parable, be the one who goes home today condemned. But Jesus calls out to you today and pleads with you: Be like the tax collector! Be the one who goes home justified!
The Gospel tells us who Jesus’ audience was when he first told this parable. He spoke it to church members – members of the church of Israel – who were very self-confident, confident in themselves that they were righteous, that they were good people who deserved to receive good things from God. As a result, they looked down at everyone who didn’t live up to their standards.
So Jesus tells of two men who went to the Temple in Jerusalem, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
Now, I know we mention the Pharisees quite a bit and we’ve talked about them before, but this parable really highlights what it meant to be part of that religious social organization called “the Pharisees.” They were the law-abiding citizens of Israel, religious activists who took the rule of law seriously. They loved the law. But – and this is key – their major flaw was not in their love for God’s law, but in their delusion that they were actually keeping it! They thought that, because they weren’t murderers or robbers or adulterers, that they were good, righteous people who didn’t deserve God’s anger or punishment. They thought that, because they prayed often and fasted often and put big offerings in the plate, that they did deserve God’s approval and praise, far more than other men deserved it.
The Pharisee’s prayer was pretty arrogant, wasn’t it? He stood up in the Temple where he could be seen and heard. He looked up to heaven and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” So, why did the Pharisee go to the Temple that day? Because he had something to offer God. He wanted to offer God his good deeds, his righteous life. He came to God with his record of law-keeping in his hand. And what did he seek from God in return? He was seeking God’s praise, wasn’t he? He sought praise from God because he offered to God a life of good works that he thought had earned him God’s approval and praise.
Then there’s the tax collector. We’ve talked about the tax collectors many times, too. The tax collectors were employed by the Roman government to collect a certain amount of taxes from people. That was enough to get people upset with them. But what really gave them a bad reputation was that they were authorized by Rome to enhance their own salaries by adding a commission fee to people’s tax burden – as much as they wanted, to keep it for themselves. So you can imagine how they abused their fellow Israelites. It was perfectly legal according to Roman law, but according to God’s law to love your neighbor and not take advantage of him, it was utterly sinful and shameful.
So, knowing that he has no righteousness to offer God, nothing in his hand but sin, why does he go to the Temple? Why bother coming into God’s presence if you have nothing good to offer him? And yet, he went. He stood in a corner of the Temple where hopefully no one would see him or hear him. He looked down, too ashamed to look up to heaven. He beat his breast and prayed just a few words: God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Why did he go to the Temple that day? You see, he had something to offer God, too. Not a single excuse, not a shred of his own righteousness, just his sin. He held his sin up to God in shame, seeking not a word of praise, but seeking only God’s pity and help.
Now here’s the unknown. Here’s the mystery that only the Son of God could reveal, because only the Son of God came from God the Father and knows what verdict is handed down in the heavenly courtroom: Which one of these men, the Pharisee or the tax collector, received God’s approval and which one was rejected? Which one went home condemned and which one went home justified? If you would have asked the average Jew who saw those two men praying, he would have said, “Well of course, the Pharisee is righteous; the tax collector stands condemned.” If you would have asked the Pharisee, he would have told you, “Well, of course God judges me as righteous. I am righteous.” But Jesus turns human wisdom upside down. I tell you that this man – the tax collector! – rather than the Pharisee, went home justified. Forgiven of all his sins, the sinful tax collector was declared righteous in heaven’s eyes, while the Pharisee stood condemned.
Why? Remember, I asked you to chew on this on the beginning of the sermon: What you receive from God depends on what you seek from God. And what you seek from God depends on what you have to offer him. If, like the Pharisee, you have your righteousness and goodness to offer to God, then, like the Pharisee, you will seek praise and approval from God because of your righteousness. And then you, like the Pharisee will receive condemnation from God, because in his judgment, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” But if, like the tax collector, you have only your sin and shame to offer to God, then, like the tax collector you will seek only mercy from God. And then you, like the tax collector, will receive mercy and forgiveness and justification.
Our Lutheran Confessions get this exactly right: “So the worship and divine service of the Gospel is to receive gifts from God. On the contrary, the worship of the Law is to offer and present our gifts to God. However, we can offer nothing to God unless we have first been reconciled and born again. This passage, too, brings the greatest comfort, as the chief worship of the Gospel is to desire to receive the forgiveness of sins, grace, and righteousness.”
This is where it gets serious for you who have assembled today as the Temple of God. What will you offer him? What do you seek to receive when you come before God?
There are only two things you can offer him. Either you can offer him the worship of the Law like the Pharisee – your record of good deeds, seeking his approval based on that record, or you can offer him the worship of the Gospel, which means that you offer him nothing, like the tax collector, nothing but your sin, seeking his mercy for the sake of Christ, seeking to be judged, not by your record, but by the record of the man, Christ Jesus. The record of Christ is perfect and full of God’s mercy, full and free and abundant.
So you who have come here today into God’s presence confident that you are a good person, confident that you are righteous, maybe not even caring about receiving anything from God here – Jesus wants you to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God thinks you’re wretched. He judges you to be the Pharisee; your arrogance alone condemns you. If you will not humble yourself before him, then know for certain that he will humble you. I only pray that he does it to you yet in this life, while you still have time for him to lift you up by his Spirit, because if you go down to the grave still thinking so highly of yourself, then it will be too late. You will be humbled in God’s eternal condemnation.
But you who have come here today into God’s presence convinced that you are unrighteous, that you are a wretched, unworthy sinner who can’t seem to get it right no matter how hard you work at it – for you there is hope, a sure hope that can never fail. Jesus wants you to know that God loves to be merciful to sinners. God’s purpose in humbling the proud is so that he may lift up the humble. So offer him your sin. Seek his mercy in humility, not because you deserve it, but because, in Christ, God is a gracious Father. Seek his mercy for the sake of Jesus Christ who has paid the price for all your unrighteousness and now gives you his own righteousness to wear. He forgives you your sins – all of them. He forgave them when you were baptized. He daily and richly forgives all sins to you and all believers in Christ. He forgives them right here, right now in the Word of the Gospel. He forgives them with the seal and pledge of his very body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.
So guard your steps when you go to the house of God. It is no trifling matter. Eternal verdicts are handed out in this place: life and death, condemnation and justification. Only in the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of Christ’s Sacraments are justification verdicts handed out. So don’t be the one who comes here to offer God your goodness or your works. Come always into God’s presence with an open and empty hand, and you have God’s guarantee that he will always fill it with his grace. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves. It is the gift of God. Not by works, so that no one can boast. You who believe in the God who is merciful to sinners for the sake of Christ will go home today having received again his forgiveness and his life. You will go home with the love and favor of God. You will go home justified. Amen.